Michael Moore is getting more optimistic as he gets older.
Oddly, he is also far more naive than he used to be.
At least, those are the major impressions I get from "Where To Invade Next," his latest documentary, and his first film since "Capitalism: A Love Story" in 2009. The film arrived at the 40th annual Toronto International Film Festival under a shroud of secrecy, and based on his history and that title, one might reasonably expect something incendiary, something furious and urgent.
Nope. Instead, the film opens with a weird, ridiculous scene where he talks about being summoned to speak to the Joint Chiefs Of Staff, where they told him that they were admitting failure since they haven't won a war since WWII. They asked Moore for help picking the next country to invade, and they handed over control of all of the branches of the military to help with the task. It's a really smug and poorly staged sequence, and it's not funny. It's also a very strange conceit to hang the entire documentary on, and it's just the first odd misstep Moore makes.
Instead of being a film about which countries we should invade, which would be tasteless and horrifying, Moore uses this as a joke set-up for a series of vignettes in which he visits other countries to examine something they're doing as a society that we should be doing better here in the US. He goes to France to look at the way they handle school lunches. He goes to Norway to look at their prison system. He goes to Italy to examine worker's rights and how much paid vacation they get every year. He goes to Slovenia to look at the way they handle college tuitions. It's essentially a whistle-stop tour of all the places where European socialism is triumphing and making everyone's lives perfect.
Only… that's not the truth, is it? Sure, each of the things he highlights seem pretty great in the way he presents them, and I certainly think there are things where we could benefit from some major social overhauls that come closer to the models we see here. But Europe's been struggling through their own crises over the last decade, and there's nothing in Moore's film that even hints at the fractures forming in the EU. He's very careful about which countries he visits and what he "learns" from each one, and he makes sure that almost all of the footage he shows from America is horrifying, the worst of the worst of the worst. None of it is fake, of course, but just as he does with the way he presents Europe, he's being very selective here.
What's really strange about watching this is that Moore has aged quite a bit, and he's not the same wry fun presence he was in, say, "TV Nation." He just doesn't have that same wit at this point. Most of the interviews consist of him saying things like "Wow." We're living in a post-"Daily Show" world now, and I think Moore should have really honed his game in the six years since his last movie. Instead, the pacing on this one is flaccid, and while I think he has some interesting points to make, the framing device to the film is a total bust. Watching him plant an American flag in each place he "invades" is neither clever nor enertaining in the way he thinks it is, and it just feels awkward most of the time.
There are plenty of people doing cutting social satire now, and who are unafraid to ask insane people direct questions, and it feels like Moore has been left behind. If this is what he's put together after six years off, then I'm not sure what gas he's got left in the tank. Commercial prospects for the film are enormously difficult; lots of American audiences are going to hate the message of the film, and international audiences are likely to laugh at some of the most naive material in the film. When his films have connected with audiences, either critically or commercially, it's because he's managed to tap into something real and infuriating. That is not the case with this one, and even though he makes some good points (his material about Iceland's attitudes towards women in business is the best stretch of the film, and could have easily been an entire movie), he no longer seems able to focus things in a way that will both infuriate and inform. It feels like he just plain never figured out how to make that ridiculous premise actually pay off as a movie, and it's a damn shame. I didn't always agree with Michael Moore, but I've rarely found him flat-out boring. Not until now.
"Where To Invade Next" is still looking for a distributor.